Wu Sangui — A Controversial Traitor in the Ancient History of China

Wu Sangui (1616 — 1678), courtesy name as Changbo, was an exceptional general that had been widely considered as a traitor, who had betrayed all regimes that he had pledged loyalty to.

Ming Dynasty, Shun Dynasty, and Qing Dynasty, those regimes that Wu Sangui had pledged loyalty to, all were betrayed by him and encountered huge loss. 

However, due to the complicated historical situations, his betrayal behaviors were not just pure evil. 

General Wu Sangui of Qing Dynasty in History of China

Brave and Loyal General Wu Sangui

Born into a military family of the Ming Dynasty, Wu Sangui was brave, excellent at martial arts, and had achieved a good score in the Military Imperial Examination.

Wu Sangui and his father, who was also an excellent general, were both serving in Ming’s army in the Line of Defense troop that General Sun Chengzong built.  

Once, when his father was enclosed by hundreds of cavalry enemies, Wu Sangui led a couple of his guards to rush into the encirclement, defeated way outnumbered enemies, and successfully saved his father after intense battles. 

Afterward, he got promoted several times, because of his braveness and excellent military skills.

The Manchu regime tried many times to summon him to surrender, with big money and power, including his powerful uncle and brother that had already complied and frequently persuaded him to do the same, but he never accepted.

Soon, Wu Sangui became the chief commander of an extremely elite cavalry troop, guarding in the most important military site in the Great Wall, the Shanhai Pass, of which inside was the Ming Empire, and outside was the nomadic regime Qing.

At that time, Wu Sangui was an exceptionally brave and talented general with absolute loyalty to his emperor. 

Main Gate of the Shanhai Pass

Main Gate of the Shanhai Pass in Qinhuangdao City

Hard Decision on Choosing Sides


Then, an uprising army of refugees and peasants was marching toward Ming’s capital city Beijing, Wu Sangui was summoned to come back to protect this city.

However, on his way to Beijing, the city was occupied by the rebel army, and his emperor Zhu Youjian committed suicide.  

The leader of this rebellion army, Li Zicheng (1606 — 1645), now the King of the newly established Shun Dynasty (1644 — 1645), summoned Wu Sangui and his elite army to comply. 

Wu Sangui and his army were in a difficult situation: he wasn’t strong enough to revenge for his emperor, or build an independent kingdom; he was not willing to surrender to his long-time enemy, the Manchuria Regime; but he didn’t want to surrender to Li Zicheng, who had just perished the Ming Dynasty either.

But he had to make a choice, as he was surrounded by powerful and strong enemies who were waiting for his answer. 

In the end, Wu Sangui decided to surrender to Li Zicheng’s Shun Dynasty. 

Cavalry Army of the Ming Dynasty in the Painting "Ping Fan De Sheng Tu", Painted Around 1573-1620

Cavalry Army of the Late Ming Dynasty in the Painting "Ping Fan De Sheng Tu", Painted Around 1573-1620 - National Museum of China

A "Plausible", Tricky Pact

However, Li Zicheng didn’t believe Wu Sangui’s loyalty, so he imprisoned Wu’s father and the whole family as hostages; many of the former ministers of the Ming Empire were humiliated and tortured as well.

In some gossips, Li Zicheng also occupied Wu Sangui’s favorite concubine named Chen Yuanyuan, which was believed a crucial reason for Wu’s changing mind. 

Anyhow, Wu Sangui promised Li Zicheng to comply, and spent months negotiating, or pretending to discuss relevant issues. 

At the same time, Wu Sangui also secretly agreed with the Manchu Regent Dorgon: the Manchu regime would help Wu Sangui to defeat Li Zicheng and assist another prince of Ming to re-establish the Ming Dynasty in southern China, while Manchu would occupy northern China. Besides, the Manchu army wouldn't slaughter any civilians of Ming.  

Wu Sangui probably didn’t realize that sometimes, only the equal strength could come up with a relatively fair agreement; because one side needs to be strong and capable enough to make sure that the other side would follow the terms.

Portrait of Manchu Regent Dorgon of the Qing Dynasty

Portrait of Manchu Regent Dorgon of the Qing Dynasty

Reluctantly Surrender to the Perfidious Qing Empire

King Li Zicheng was unsatisfied with Wu Sangui’s delaying response and changing idea, so he led his army marched toward the Shanhai Pass that Wu was garrisoning, and planned to take this important military site over. 

Wu Sangui led about 50,000 soldiers to fight intensely against Li Zicheng’s around 100,000 warriors, while the Manchu Lord Dorgon refused to participate and kept observing. 

After they had been fought fiercely for a long time, When Wu Sangui’s army kept losing and retreating, the Manchu Lord Dorgon led about 80,000 strong cavalrymen, out of a sudden, attacked Li Zicheng aggressively, and won.

Tens of thousands of soldiers died in this cruel battle. 

Li Zicheng was seriously hurt, and his empire the Shun Dynasty started to decline dramatically after this war. Before he retreated to other places, he executed Wu Sangui’s father out of furious.

Wu Sangui also encountered huge losses and was not able to make Manchu follow the agreement that they signed before. Afterward, Wu Sangui surrendered, reluctantly.

The Manchu regime, on the other hand, seized this opportunity, went through the Great Wall, and moved their capital to Beijing. 

Their king Fulin moved to the Forbidden City and claimed as the Shunzhi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty.

Royal Palace of the Ming and Qing Dynasties — The Forbidden City in Beijing

Royal Palace of the Ming and Qing Dynasties — The Forbidden City in Beijing

Great Power and Wealth of King Wu Sangui

Manchu regime, now the Qing Empire, refused to follow the agreement with Wu Sangui, which regulated that Qing and the re-established Ming divide and rule China separately and independently.

Qing kept expanding and had unified most places in China, who also committed countless cruel massacres; Wu Sangui kept fighting bravely for the Qing government and showing them his loyalty.

Wu Sangui, in the next decades, had contributed significantly to Qing’s unification of the whole of the nation. 

In return, Wu Sangui was rewarded as the King of Yunnan and Guizhou Provinces. His son married an honored princess, the younger sister of Shunzhi Emperor. 

Wu Sangui's Final Betrayal of the Ming Empire

If what Wu Sangui did before was the consequences of complicated situations, wrong judgments,  or sly but strong enemies, then killing Zhu Youlang made him a complete traitor of the Ming Dynasty.

Zhu Youlang (1623 — 1662), the grandson of the Wanli Emperor of Ming, was supported as the Yongli Emperor in the year 1646. 

After Chongzhen Emperor Zhu Youjian sacrificed in the year 1644, some princes of the Ming’s royal family were supported to be emperors of other regimes of Ming in southern China, and Yongli Emperor was the last of them.  

Large numbers of loyal generals, soldiers, and civilians of Ming fought bravely, but they still failed. 

After Wu Sangui occupied Yunnan Province and was granted the king, to show his great loyalty to Qing, he tracked down and assassinated the Yongli Emperor, on his own. Moreover, Yongli Emperor’s entire family was executed.  

This behavior was long been criticized and despised and made Wu Sangui the most devious, utter traitor of the Ming Dynasty. 

As a general of Ming, he eliminated the last emperor, also the last hope, of those who still wanted to recover the Ming Empire. 

Monument in the Place (Bi Si Po) that Yongli Emperor Sacrificed

Monument in the Place (Bi Si Po) that Yongli Emperor Sacrificed — Kunming, Yunnan Province

Rebel War Against the Qing Dynasty

A few years later, when the Qing Empire’s ruling was stable, the current Kangxi Emperor started to weaken and abolish Wu’s political and military power. 

Wu Sangui was commanded to cut down large numbers of soldiers in his army and to hand over administrative, financial, and judicial authorities gradually.

Then, Wu Sangui realized that he was useless to the new emperor now, who will remove everything from him.

In the year 1673, the Kangxi Emperor commanded Wu Sangui to migrate to other places far away, break up his elite troop, and transfer all of his authorities to the Qing government. 

Then Wu Sangui initiated a rebel war against the Qing Empire. 

Some said that he was unsatisfied with having his power taken away. Others said that within his army, many people still wanted to recover the Ming Empire; as a chief commander, Wu Sangui couldn't let down those large numbers of his loyal soldiers.


Besides, having his troop reorganized meant that tens of thousands of his warriors and their families would be demoted, and suffered big loss financially.  

Anyway, Wu Sangui rebelled, under the name of expelling the nomadic Manchu regime and recovering the Ming Empire.  

Wu Sangui and His Army

Failure of Wu Sangui and His Allied Troops

Wu Sangui claimed that he secretly kept a son of the late Chongzhen Emperor; now, this prince has grown up, and it’s time to assist this prince to reestablish the Ming Empire. 

Therefore, many forces that were willing to restore the Ming Empire all responded actively; they allied together and fought bravely against the Qing Dynasty.

This was the Revolt of Three Feudatories that lasted for 8 years.

In the first few years, everything went quite well. With his excellent military skills and his extremely elite cavalry troop, Wu Sangui occupied almost half of China and kept winning.

However, Wu Sangui was too old. He passed away, old and sick, only 5 months after he established his new dynasty and claimed himself emperor.

Without the excellent general Wu Sangui, the rebellion army lost very soon. His oldest son was executed by Kangxi Emperor, and his grandson committed suicide after they were defeated by the Qing. 

Part of the "Dong Weiguo Ji Gong Tu" that Described Qing's General Dong Defeating Wu Sangui's Rebellion, Painted by Artist Huang Bi in 1677

Part of the "Dong Weiguo Ji Gong Tu" that Described Qing's General Dong Defeating Wu Sangui's Rebellion, Painted by Artist Huang Bi in 1677 — National Museum of China

At that time, other forces wanted to recover the Ming Dynasty, but they were neither united nor well organized; instead, they all wanted to expand their benefits.

Therefore, though they had won several times and occupied nearly half China, and obtained great supports from large numbers of civilians, they lost all chances in the end, like Wu Sangui in Yunnan and Guizhou, Geng Jingzhong in Fujian, Shang Clan in Guangdong, and Zheng clan in Taiwan. 


Controversial, Widely Criticized Traitor Wu Sangui

Wu Sangui was a widely criticized traitor in the history of China, for his betrayal of the Ming, the Shun, and the Qing. 

History was written by the victors. Hence, it is hard to know exactly what Wu Sangui’s original intention was: to revenge for his late emperor, or just to maintain his benefit? 

In history which was consisted of complicated aspects, an absolute and accurate comment was not always easy. 

However, his choices did influence the history of China, did take away countless lives, and did cause huge losses to all sovereigns that he had pledged loyalty to. 

Hence, despite controversial situations, people of the Ming and Qing all considered Wu Sangui as a big traitor.